03/18/12

James Miles? Goethe? Sorry: this quote is from Malcolm Forbes


Ice Age, not New Age, but the message is the sameAnother New Age quote showed up on Facebook today, one of those warn-n-fuzzy, touchy-feely sayings that either make you gag or go weak at the knees. This one is ascribed to James D. Miles. Miles was, according to answers.com (a site of dubious factuality and not terribly reliable at the best of timns), “…an associate professor of Psychology at Purdue University.” The author of this answer claimed Miles was “…quoting the German poet, novelist, playwright, scientist and philosopher Johann Wofgang von Goethe (1749-1832).”

Miles is, indeed, a professor at Purdue, or at least has been in the recent past. But the last part is incorrect, or rather the attribution to Goethe is. Here’s the quotation in question attributed to James D. Miles:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

Miles isn’t found in Wiki Quotes, nor did I find the quotation buried under another author’s name. I did scan a few works of Goethe and checked my Bartlett’s, but none of which showed these lines. So I turned to a very reliable, no-nonsense source…

According to the Quote Investigator, the quote has been variously attributed to, “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.”

One of those names is correct, but it isn’t James D. Miles. As QI notes:

The earliest instance of this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:
Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.
In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

Internet quotesI’m glad there are reliable, factual sources like the Quote Investigator; people willing to put in the time and effort to help correct these mistakes. Still, I can’t help but feel the effort is wasted because the general public would rather feel good than be right.

03/18/12

Does this really sound like Sitting Bull?


Sitting BullAnother quote meme going around on the Internet claims to be from Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), the famous Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief. A fascinating man in a difficult time. He was brave, intelligent and, from all accounts, wise. So when I read the quote below, I was torn. It’s a good comment, one that sounds like it should come from a wise man. But was that wise man really Sitting Bull?

Or perhaps these words are from someone else. There are many of these false quotations online, words that have been appropriated and mis-attributed by the many slow and lazy Web users who can’t be bothered to confirm the source. From Shakespeare to Einstein, I’ve found dozens of bad quotes that spread around the Net, becoming memes. But even if the words are wise, attributing them to the wrong person just contributes to the general dumbing down of everyone who reads them. So who actually said:

For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another’s life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.

This one is repeated by Native Americans and on native sites as well, so perhaps it has some validity, but none of them ascribe any source to it, either.

I have yet to find any source that shows when or where Sitting Bull actually said it. So until then, it remains classified as a bad meme and likely by someone else.

I suspect it’s more wishful thinking than accurate attribution. We want our cultural, folk and personal heroes to sound wise and inspiring, so we attribute to them something that we believe they would have, could have, or should have said, often without checking back to be sure they actually said it. And when we do it online, we create a meme that gets spread like those crazy emails about Microsoft promising us millions if we just forward it to everyone we know.

Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street.

Wikiquotes – a generally reliable source – has several quotations from Sitting Bull, properly attributed. This is not among them, and is not even among the many unsourced quotes it lists. The quote itself is not found anywhere on Wiki Quotes by any other author.

My printed sources offer no help. Neither the Oxford nor the Penguin dictionaries of quotations have anything from Sitting Bull. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th/125th anniversary edition) has a single statement Sitting Bull made that reads,

“What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one. When I was a boy the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?… What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am a Sioux; because I was born where my father lived; because I would die for my people and my country?”

The ellipses says that this is a partial quote and that some of the words have been left out. That, however, is the only printed sources I have for any Sitting Bull quotes. There are quotes attributed to Sitting Bull to be found in some of the older books (many published pre-1920) digitized in the Internet Archives. None of them I have found (yet) match the quotation at the top of this page. However, their accuracy is questionable since they mostly seem to be second- or third-hand. Here are two from one source I’ve culled:

“Do you not see that the whites on the reservation are afraid of you? Why do you pray to great Wakantanka to send the Saviour on earth and bring about a change when the remedy lies in your own hands? Be men, not children. You have a perfect right to dance upon your own reservation as much as you please, and you should exercise this right, even if you find it necessary to use your guns. Be brave, and the great and good Wakantanka will aid your arms. Be cowards, and he will be ashamed of you.”

God Almighty made me an Indian, and he did not make me an agency Indian, and I do not intend to be one.

Here’s a quote from another 19th century source:

This is not my doings nor these men’s. They are fighting because they were commanded to fight. We have killed their leader, let them go. I call on the Great Spirit to witness what I say. We did not want to fight. Long Hair sent us word that he was coming to fight us, and we had to defend ourselves and our wives and children. If this command had not been given we could have cut Reno’s command to pieces, as we did Custer’s. No warrior knew Custer in the fight. We did not know him, dead or alive. When the fight was over the chiefs gave orders- to look for the long-haired chief among the dead, but no chief with long hair could be found.

Whether these are actual quotes, or paraphrased by the 19th century writers to better suit their personal, biased views of the ‘primitive savages’ they wrote about, I have no way to ascertain. I expect the latter.

I personally suspect the source of the original quotation is another writer. Perhaps from one of Dan Millman’s “peaceful warrior” books or from one of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books. Both have written on warriors, and the end bit about “…the children, the future of humanity” seems more suited to the style of these writers than to the few actual quotations of Sitting Bull’s I’ve read.

A third option is the inspirational/spiritual writer Paul Coelho, possibly from the Manual of the Warrior of the Light (1997) or possibly his novel, The Valkyries. Coelho founded the Paulo Coelho Institute, which provides aid to children and elderly people with financial problems. Coelho wrote on his blog,

“To the warriors of light, there is no such thing as impossible love.
They don’t allow themselves to be intimidated by silence, or by rejection.
They know that – behind the icy mask people wear – there is a heart of fire.
That is why the warriors risk more than others.
They tirelessly seek love – even if this means hearing, many times over, the word ‘no’, returning home defeated, feeling rejected in body and soul.
Warriors don’t allow themselves to be discouraged. Without love, living has no meaning.”

Coelho, Castaneda and Millman all write in a similar New-Age style that is a lot more like the quotation in question than anything I’ve read that can be verified as being by Sitting Bull. Similar sentiments to this and the quotation in question are expressed in different wording on several martial arts/bushido, New Age and even gaming sites, as well. Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street. It’s not a sentiment I would ascribe to many military leaders. And Sitting Bull was certainly one of those.

03/17/12

Crystal crazy: self-professed psychics on Facebook


Claptrap card gameThe Internet has provided a virtual continent for the colonies of faith healers, psychics, astrologers, UFO hunters, ghost and haunting sightings, crypto-zoologists, promoters of angels, spirits, demons, auras, and a wealth of pseudoscience and claptrap. In a culture where the critical thinking, quest of knowledge and skepticism that characterized the Enlightenment have given way to superstition and fundamentalism, the Net has proven a rich source of believers and followers for the charlatans and hucksters.

Facebook and Youtube combine to make the Alexandria Library for the hard-of-thinking. Many of the promoters of this nonsense feed off one another and create their own memes. Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian,

In the 18th century, a revolution in thought, known as the Enlightenment, dragged us away from the superstition and brutality of the Middle Ages toward a modern age of science, reason and democracy. It changed everything. If it wasn’t for the Enlightenment, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You’d be standing in a smock throwing turnips at a witch. Yes, the Enlightenment was one of the most significant developments since the wheel. Which is why we’re trying to bollocks it all up.
Welcome to a dangerous new era – the Unlightenment – in which centuries of rational thought are overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They’re everywhere – reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about “chakras” and “healing energies”, praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We’ve got to respect their beliefs, apparently.
Well I don’t. “Spirituality” is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you’ve ever described yourself as “quite spiritual”, do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you’re incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?

Recently I got into a bit of a verbal spat on FB with a character who calls herself (himself?) Higher Connection – Raising Our Vibration. Right away, just on seeing the puerile name, the old bullshit detector started going off. A friend (a real person I’ve met in the flesh, not just an imaginary friend like most Facebook connections are) posted a like/share to the above-mentioned person’s post in which she wrote,

Mass healing time again :) Energetic, Theta Healing, Reiki and Soul Recall.
Put your name (or anyone elses, a pets.. as many as you want!) in this list to receive healings and adjustments. In this healing I will send it out to where any of your imbalances are…. then I will recall all of your soul fragments (when we go through trauma we leave chunks of our energy imprint behind. we need them back.) and I will break any soul contracts or agreements or vows that no longer apply and that you are done with (you don’t have to do anything, don’t worry.) I am also getting told I need to send you all PEACE and LOVE. So we will leave it at that for now. Bit at a time :) Be sure that this healing feels right to you at this time, and choose your friends carefully. Some people are not ready or do not want to heal. Yet I always intend that this works according to each persons higher self decision ?

Whenever anyone I know strays into pseudoscience or superstition, I feel a responsibility to intervene. It’s like seeing a friend wade into a dangerous river. I cannot sit by and watch them drown, whether it be in water or superstitious codswallop.

Seeing his “share”, I felt compelled to comment at the end of several dozen bits of poorly spelled drivel that praised the original writer and added all sorts of requests for “healing”: “Claptrap,” I wrote. “Hookum. Codswallop. Come on, Mike. You’re smarter than this. Or are you one of the Pod people now?”

Ooh. That stirred up a hornet’s nest of the grammatically challenged hard-of-thinking crew. Good vibes or whatever her pseudonym is, responded,”…thats inappropriate. we do not come door knocking at your door. for a reason, its rude. ok?.” And I dove in: “Dear “Higher vibes” – sorry if you’re offended but pseudoscience and superstition always make me cranky. When my friend posts a link to claptrap, I have to comment to him. I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I let him meander down this road without a warning that it leads to silliness and ends up spending your money on “healing” crystals and warm & fuzzy “self help” books. What kind of friend lets a friend buy “healing” crystals?”

Put some stick about, I say. Our vibrating author responded (and these are verbatim, uncorrected quotes): “that is YOUR unimformed opinion. He is not buying real estate. just chill and worry about what you are doing ok.. He is in no danger. If it makes him feel better, how is it hurting him? There’s just no need for it. It’s nice you care about him, but you know nothing of this. It’s way smarter to say hey, WHY do all these other people believe this? Just respect your opinion is different. You don’t have to believe it, thats totally ok with is. ?”

Little heart characters were scattered through the original, but they don’t get translated into WordPress when copied. Small mercies, I suppose. Her comment makes you gooey at the knees, doesn’t it?

Do superstition and pseudoscience hurt someone? Do silly beliefs or falling for the cons of self-described “psychics” and “healers” harm someone? Well, I believe stupidity and self-delusion hurts by making a person more gullible, less critical, less open to knowledge and science, more closed to the real world. Lack of critical thinking leads to all sorts of nonsense: creationism, UFOs, astrology, feng shui, aromatherapy, phrenology, ghosts, spirits, angels, faith healing, tarot readings, auras, Scientology, crop circles, psychics, the Tea Party and Justin Bieber. I feel it’s my role as a rationalist and existentialist to help guide my friend from the dark side. I’m not being rude or nasty intentionally, just honest and caring about my friend’s mental welfare.

I mean, how much do we have to tolerate? Do we always have to respect someone’s beliefs when they’re utterly silly or even dangerous? When should we intervene to give them a metaphorical wake-up slap?

Meanwhile, another poster chimed in with: “She is providing her healings for free! You can rest assured you friend is not being taken advantage of here. As a matter of fact it is quite the opposite :)”

Free psychic energy? Just like free perpetual motion. Free angels. Free ghosts. And yes, free “healings.” Yes, I say: people ARE being taken advantage of: they’re being dragged into the medieval mindset of superstition that binds their intelligence in a dark place where they cannot think except through the lense of psychic hucksterism with imaginary beings guiding them.

Good vibes chimed back in:

…you are obviously not a very scientific man. Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven. do a little research before making claims, it just makes you no better than blind religious faith, does it not? And….. these healing crystals… are about $2 piece. You are being a bit ridiculous. Everything we are doing here, mostly, is SCIENCE now. Its funny that skeptics and apparent science believers do not keep up with the times. I’m not trying to be rude.. just telling you you are gravely behind the times and uninformed. Do you not want your friend happy? Stop trying to control him then. If a book makes him happy, that is WAY more important than anything else, his feeling of happiness, I would think… what do you suspect is NECESSARY for a watch to runlike it does? An energy conductor AND producer. Called Quartz Crystal. Just sayin :) Go read some :)

A watch? Well of course I know how a watch works. Like most watches these days, mine is digital, but it still uses a tiny bit of quartz as its heart. Quartz is used as a replacement for an oscillating mechanical device, not as a source of energy. A small voltage is supplied from the battery to make the quartz tuning fork vibrate (at 32,768 Hz). That vibration is measured as current fluctuations by the electronics in the watch and used to count time. It’s the piezoelectric effect (musicians with passive pickups on their instruments know all about it). Those vibrations are translated into electrical energy which either powers the digital display or a tiny stepper motor that moves the hands. Nothing magical about it. And without the battery, a watch doesn’t run.

But, as Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Profiles of The Future, 1961, AKA Clarke’s third law). Perhaps to people who believe in “spirit guides” and “higher planes,” a digital watch IS magic.

If crystals could heal (they can’t, but let’s pretend), since most of us wear one on our wrist, why buy another? Since quartz is a crystal and quartz is the most common element of sand, why not just stick a handful of sand in your pocket? Why are people who walk on sandy beaches no more healthy or spiritually attuned than people walking on gravel? So many questions to tax their beliefs with.

I had to thank the vibration lady for the good chuckle I had over her comment that, “Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven.” I didn’t bother to correct the verb or the spelling, however. If I tried to correct every glaring grammatical, spelling and punctuation error in the morass of her and her followers’ comments, I’d still be typing on that thread. A scan through her FB page shows hundreds of posts and responses from people who appear to struggle greatly with the basics of English. And the keyboard must be an equal mystery since few actually know how to work the shift key.

Here’s one of the author’s own posts:

OMFG are you serious haha!! i SAID IS YOUR STOMACH HURTING.. YOU NEED TEH OCEAN FOR HEALING.. AND YOUR STOMACH HURT AND you (woops) sat down and looked at a ohoto of the ocean… is all this before reading what i wrote or after.?? omg! Anyway…. If the voice is always telling you positive things.. If it NEVER frightens you, says megative or awful things. .. etc etc etc then YES ALWAYS LISTEN TO IT. It is your Guide. He is from Lemuria… Plieadian he is telling me (god i hope that adds up or i will look silly!) and he is trying to help you right now wiht your life purpose. I am trying to get his name… Chimora or Chimpera…. Chimera I think! You ask his name and see what YOU get. I am not certain. But yes, the universe always gives you signs and you should always trust it ?

The head shakes when I read stuff like that. Here’s a post on the FB page from one of her followers:

Its funny these cards came up today, last night I was listening to Judi Satori, that channels messages from other Galxies and from the Angels. And her transmission, well for Feb and March 2012 from the Ascended Masters, was exactly the same message, how we are being protected and guided, and despite everything going on we will be okay. Just have faith, continue on our paths, meditations, grounding and klear karmic energy to prepare ourselves for the transmission of the coming months. Everyone will be safe, despite the chaos and calamities on the earth , we all will come through, even though there may be difficult times ahead from some of us. More validly from above :-)

I won’t reprint any more of the silliness of these posts, in part because there’s such a treasure trove of drivel, I barely know where to start. Stuff about “higher planes,” angels, “spirit guides,” “clearing exercises,” card readings, “power” animals… the list of nonsense is long and dreary. And the English is often bad enough to cause migraines.

These people are lost, hurting folks; looking for help, for advice, for some rock of stability in an increasingly complex and challenging world. It’s a world where knowledge is the currency for growth and development, and where science and technology seem increasing like magic: obscure, occult and perhaps frightening. I read their pathetic pleas for help with problems in their family, friends, work, love life, with a twinge of sadness and even sympathy. The world is difficult, and they feel themselves adrift on an angry ocean they cannot understand, much less control.

Cognitive dissonanceBut instead of looking for answers, instead of working towards solutions, they choose to hide in the dark superstitions promoted by hucksters, charlatans, con artists and well-meaning but delusional wingnuts. They accept the claptrap and empty but satisfying verbiage of these self-professed healers and “psychics.” They put their faith in imaginary forces or beings. This stuff is like eating potato chips and drinking pop instead of eating real food: empty calories, lots of fat but no substance. Charlie Brooker is more caustic in his advice: “If you want comforting, suck your thumb. Buy a pillow. Don’t make up a load of floaty blah about energy or destiny. This is the real world, stupid. We should be solving problems, not sticking our fingers in our ears and singing about fairies… ”

When believers learn that crystals and spirit guides and “psychics” don’t cure cancer, don’t fix broken marriages, don’t get your job back, don’t stops wars or make them win the lottery, what happens? Cognitive dissonance. A psychological way to deny the truth and fortify your beliefs when when those beliefs are challenged or proven wrong. Ah, but that’s a topic for a future post.

Let me, instead, show you a Youtube video of a self-professed “psychic” as randomly chosen sample of the sort of nonsense that is being perpetuated online. She is (as she says), “one of many, many people who talk to angels.” Note that what she calls “research” any scientists would consider self-delusion. It’s a tough piece to listen to and I couldn’t handle all the claptrap in one sitting, so feel free to turn it off at any point you get intellectually nauseous:

And let me end with this video by Michael Shermer on why people believe weird and improbable things:

03/16/12

Is a wandering mind ADHD or just natural reaction?


Attention disorder?Serendipity: this image appeared on Facebook this week, followed by an article on Science Daily today, titled, “A Wandering Mind Reveals Mental Processes and Priorities.” The combined impact got me thinking about attention and focus.

A new study investigating the mental processes underlying a wandering mind reports a role for working memory, a sort of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously… The new study, published online March 14 in the journal Psychological Science … reports that a person’s working memory capacity relates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment.

As someone whose mind is on a permanent hike across the mental landscape, and meanders through thoughts, ideas, tasks and imagination frequently and seemingly randomly, I am interested in the psychology and biology of wandering minds and attention deficit disorders. I love it when people call it “multi-tasking,” because it sounds like I’m doing it intentionally. To me, it’s just being distracted.

Is that bad? I read a dozen books at any time, a chapter here, a chapter there. I read from at least three different books every night before bed, sometimes five or six. I have the attention span of a literary fruit fly. But I consume books and read voraciously.

However, I tend to be an ADD/ADHD agnostic when it comes to the popular idea that kids need to be medicated to focus their brains. I get nervous when drug companies promote their drugs as a cure for things that no one seems to have heard of before the drugs hit the shelf. Especially when the market for ADHD drugs tops $4 billion a year.

Does that make ADHD a fad or an invention? Some writers like Stephen Herr seem to think so:

ADHD became a popular diagnosis in the 1980s as more parents went to work and the role of schools and teachers changed… At one time, ADHD appeared to be a reasonable theory that might help people address genuine concerns…The creation of ADHD as a psychological disorder was in part an attempt to deal with some of the difficulties of raising children. Unfortunately, that attempt has fallen short and led to new problems in recent years.
On a diagnostic level, ADHD is problematic. After generations of research, there is still no test for ADHD, nor is there a standard diagnostic measure within the profession…
What started out as a theory articulated by professionals is now an urban legend… has helped fuel a pharmacological intervention that would have seemed absurd two generations ago. As of 2006, 4.5 million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD, with nearly half taking medication. In 2008, the ADHD pharmaceutical market was worth $4 billion.
Another problem with our fixation on ADHD is that it is not working. Again, even after generations of research there is no evidence that suggests placing children on Schedule II drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, or Vyvanse improves their intellectual abilities over an extended period, or that these drugs affect children with ADHD any differently than they affect any other child. A stimulant is a stimulant is a stimulant. What we do know is that the use of these drugs can be debilitating, addictive, and deadly.

I’m not a doctor, pharmacist or psychiatrist, but when I read articles like this one, I have to wonder if ADHD is a real disorder or a populist fad:

It is impossible to judge how much of the epidemic is influenced by parents and teachers having less time and patience for their unruly kids. Or by the fact that authorization for special services requires there be an ADD diagnosis? I think these are sometimes quite important, but overall much less a factor than the huge drug company push.

Then I read this in the Science Daily report:

The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.
“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood says.

ADHD cartoonOkay. So the definition of ADHD is, “ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination. For these problems to be diagnosed as ADHD, they must be out of the normal range for a child’s age and development.” Which sounds to me like the definition of any kid stuck in school. So what is the “normal range” of development for humans whose brains are growing, changing and developing while they’re being taught?

And the symptoms also read like those some parents ascribe to the use of wireless technology: “Impaired concentration, Loss of short term memory, ADHD.” Is it ADHD or wireless? Which is the popular disorder du jour?

Hmm. Maybe some of these kids just have wandering minds. Maybe they’re just being kids: inquisitive, restless and bored. Maybe what’s wrong isn’t with them, it’s with the educational system. Maybe it’s tied into our schools’ primitive task-reward system that doesn’t engage them:

As Science Daily continues,

Where your mind wanders may be an indication of underlying priorities being held in your working memory, whether conscious or not, he says. But it doesn’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are doomed to a straying mind. The bottom line is that working memory is a resource and it’s all about how you use it, he says. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”

Stephen Herr – an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies, Leadership and Counseling at Murray State University – concludes:

On a scientific level, we get past ADHD the same way we got past phrenology and eugenics; we demand that the theories that are being expounded be based in fact and verified by research. On a societal level, we take responsibility for the fact that the diagnostic labels we have accepted, and pharmacological interventions we have embraced, are harming children and that we have no right to ask children to bear those harms. On a personal level, we place the difficulties of childhood within the context of the life of each child, and within the nature of childhood itself. We make a commitment to helping children be their best selves, and above all, we do the best we can to make sure that we never use our positions of authority to harm anyone.

ADHD cartoonMaybe a wandering mind isn’t a disease that has to be treated with drugs. Maybe it’s just a natural childhood reaction to the changing state of schools, the changing nature of parenthood, information overload, peer pressure, and too much attention wasted on competing entertainment demands provided by those substitute parents: TV/music/video games.

I’m sure glad no one diagnosed me with it when I was in school. I’d probably still be drugged.

03/14/12

Why the Republicans are bad for science


Tumblr imageRick Santorum’s recent win in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries are frightening for anyone who values science and critical thinking. Santorum is not the only Republican who frightens me. They all do. But Santorum most of all. The idea of a right-wing, homophobic, fundamentalist, creationist running the biggest and most powerful nation in the world is scary enough to keep me awake at night.

Santorum was the author of a 2001 amendment to the US education funding bill. His pro-creationist proposal was known as The Santorum Amendment. It “promoted the teaching of intelligent design while questioning the academic standing of evolution in U.S. public schools.” “Intelligent” design is anything but: it’s merely creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo. Santorum has a long history of “mischaracterizing” and misunderstanding evolution, as chronicled here: “…Santorum doesn’t need facts to back up his side, as long as he makes it sound like the other side has its own problems.”

Since Santorum’s failed attempt to get creationism inserted into the classroom, teaching so-called “intelligent” design has been declared unconstitutional by a US federal judge: “U.S. District Judge John E. Jones delivered a stinging attack on the Dover Area School Board, saying its first-in-the-nation decision in October 2004 to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum violates the constitutional separation of church and state.” The judge declared there was “overwhelming evidence” presented during the trial to prove “intelligent” design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

That hasn’t stopped Santorum from being an outspoken advocate for creationism in whatever party dress it wears. Mitt Romney, his chief rival for the top spot, has been described as a “theistic evolutionist” based on older quotes, but he has said little or nothing about creationism during the campaign for the Republican candidacy.

In 2008, Santorum commented that, “…the theory of evolution… is used to promote to a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.”

Creationist humourIn November, 2011, as the HuffPost reported, Santorum said, “the “left” and “scientific community” have monopolized the public school system’s curriculum, only permitting the teaching of evolution and leaving no room for the introduction of creation-based theories in the classroom.” Santorum bemoaned his frustration at the “whole ‘science only allows science to be taught in science class scenario.” Uh, Rick, that’s what you’re supposed to teach in a science class.

Creationism is not by itself a significant issue. It’s rather that it links to other, bigger issues. As Martin Wisckol writes,

While creationism itself rarely is the subject of political policy beyond school curriculum, it’s closely tied to high-profile issues that are – including abortion rights, stem cell use, gay marriage and birth control. And the most sizeable portion of the electorate subscribing to creationism are evangelical Christians… according to Pew researcher David Masci.

Santorum has other issues with science and scientific research aside from creationism. As Discover Magazine noted, Santorum doesn’t believe in climate change science. He doesn’t support stem cell research. Santorum called Barack Obama’s environmental policy, “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible” (see here – although that may have merely been a CYA retraction when his words were taken as a faith-based attack on Obama).

Early in the campaign, Romney distanced himself from Santorum’s ‘climate-science-is-political-science’ denial, by admitting he believed, “…the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that.” (see here). But later he flip-flopped and said, “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.” He also supports the rights of gas and oil companies to despoil the environment, including, “…drilling in the “the Gulf of Mexico, both the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves, Western lands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and off the Alaska coast.” Romney will be as bad for the environment as he will be for science, it appears.

It’s easy to target Santorum’s fundamentalist-Tea-Party-anti-science myopia and Romney’s pro-corporate-waste-the environment-deny-science position. But as Chris Mooney points out in this piece, even educated Republicans are prone to accept the same fallacies and narrow-minded views that characterize all of the presidential candidates:

Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.
Tea Party members appear to be the worst of all. In a recent survey by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, they rejected the science of global warming even more strongly than average Republicans did. For instance, considerably more Tea Party members than Republicans incorrectly thought there was a lot of scientific disagreement about global warming (69 percent to 56 percent). Most strikingly, the Tea Party members were very sure of themselves—they considered themselves “very well-informed” about global warming and were more likely than other groups to say they “do not need any more information” to make up their minds on the issue.

Mooney calls it the “smart idiot” effect, and continues:

…well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.

Rationality does not win the day, it seems, even with educated Republicans. Ideology does. And increasingly that ideology seems to be the products of a smaller and select group of uber-right media outlets (like Fox), self-appointed spokespeople (like the harridan Ann Coulter), and vocal Tea Party members. Ideology, as Martin Wisckol writes, is driving the debate about many issues, not facts – information, or empirical data:

…the “facts” used by voters are often subjective, depending on one’s political, philosophical and religious beliefs. The trend is growing, fueled in part by spurious information on the internet, and is a major reason for partisan gridlock in Sacramento and Washington.
Thirty percent of Republicans say manmade global warming is occurring, while 64 percent of Democrats say that’s the case, according to Pew Research Center. Pure creationism – which says man was created by God in his current form – is subscribed to by 52 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats, according to Gallup. Pew found the difference on creationism to be a closer – but still substantial – 39 percent to 30 percent.
And it’s not just evolution and global warming that are too complex for most voters to thoroughly assess based on data. The comparative efficiency of health-care policies, the effect of a large deficit, the best way to reduce the debt and how to stimulate the economy are other key areas where factual understanding doesn’t determine a voter’s position so much as their preexisting ideology and whose word they’re inclined to trust.

Sad to think that during the Enlightenment, governments supported the quest for learning. In the 21st Century, Republicans want the government to support ignorance and superstition.

03/13/12

NASA latest target of creationist harridans


CreationismA former NASA computer technician has filed an wrongful dismissal suit against his former employer, alleging he was, “discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design.” Engaged is a mild word. From what I’ve read in more balanced reports, he proselytized and his co-workers complained. The trial began Monday (documents here).

David Coppedge admitted he, “…handed out (religious) DVDs on the idea while at work.” But that’s not all. According to this AP story, Coppedge was also involved in political campaigning at work:

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, contends his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian, and interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a Christmas party.

Coppedge runs an apologist creationist website that tries to discredit evolutionary and biological science and new discoveries with pseudo-scientific jargon.

The Huffington Post story noted,

While the case has attracted interest because of the controversial nature of intelligent design, it is at its heart a straightforward discrimination case, said Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

“Intelligent” design is not controversial unless you try to promote it in your workplace to skeptical coworkers. Creationist advocates get shirty that your efforts get you dismissed. The story continues:

“The question is whether the plaintiff was fired simply because he was wasting people’s time and bothering them in ways that would have led him to being fired regardless of whether it was about religion or whether he was treated worse based on the religiosity of his beliefs,” said Volokh. “If he can show that, then he’s got a good case.”

The CBC story quoted John West, associate director of the inappropriately-named, right-wing anti-science “Centre for Science and Culture” at the creationist defence group, the “Discovery Institute” (aka The Discoveroids*)

“It’s part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years. This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101.”

The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

No, it isn’t free speech or conscience. It’s a typical creationist assault on science through a wedge issue. West is using typical pro-creationist/anti-science spin doctoring. In this quote, he tries to reposition the issue from one of a workplace problem to one of constitutional freedom and faith. It is neither. It’s not a war on dissent**. It’s about whether Coppedge was engaged in workplace harassment. The only “war” going on is the constant creationist assault on critical thinking.

Would these people defend someone who actively promoted astrology at JPL? Or promoted Communism? Or is protecting “free speech” limited to defending the alleged right to spout creationist folderol?

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, says his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian and other interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a “Christmas party.”

Belief in “intelligent” design IS religious. Only religious fundamentalists or biblical literalists believe in creationism. But belief alone won’t get you fired.

Live Science notes:

According to Coppedge’s complaint first filed with the courts in April 2010, JPL supervisors reprimanded Coppedge for handing out intelligent design DVDs to coworkers and discussing his beliefs about intelligent design with them. Coppedge alleges that JPL stifled his right to free speech and created a hostile work environment, demoting him from his “team lead” position in 2009. Coppedge lost his job last year.
“Plaintiff contends that, as a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ conduct and actions, he has been prejudiced and harmed as the result of Defendants’ actions suppressing and constraining protected speech in the workplace on account of viewpoint, content and religion,” reads Coppedge’s complaint filed at the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2010. The complaint has since been updated to include Coppedge’s termination.
According to JPL, it was not Coppedge’s beliefs, but his conflicts with colleagues that led to his demotion. The lab also holds that Coppedge’s firing was the result of planned budget cuts, not his intelligent design beliefs.

Strikes me that handing out religious DVDs or campaigning for a homophobic state proposition in any workplace during work hours are inappropriate acts. The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

Far more frightening is the rest of the story about the dumbing down of America:

According to the Gallup polling organization, as of 2010, 38 percent of Americans believed that humans evolved with God’s guidance, a position roughly congruous with intelligent design. Forty percent said they believed that God created humans in their present form, while 16 percent said they believed that humans evolved without God’s hand.
The Pew Research Center… in 2005… found that about 58 percent of Americans said the biblical account of creation was definitely or probably true, but the same percentage also said the same of evolution. In August 2005, a Gallup poll found that only 52 percent of Americans knew what the term “intelligent design” meant.
One study published in January found that people’s acceptance of evolution depends on their gut feeling rather than a careful examination of the evidence.
Nonetheless, evolution, creationism and intelligent design remain hot political topics. Legislators in several states introduced legislation this year that would limit the teaching of evolution or promote instruction in creationism.

Those figures are truly frightening and bode ill for science and critical thinking. Forty percent believe in creationism, while only 16% believe humans evolved without supernatural intervention. That’s sad. So very, very sad.

Creationism is fraudulent pseudoscience***. Claptrap. Codswallop. “Intelligent” Design (ID) is simply lipstick on the creationist pig. It isn’t science any more than “faith healing” is medicine.

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has been following the trial and commenting on the pieces creationist groups have been posting on their websites in their attempt to recast the case as a battle over faith rather than a workplace discipline issue. His archive of posts is here.

One example of the fundamentalist spin is this screed from an uber-right site:

In a developing case indicative of the growing war on religion and in particular Christianity, opening statements are expected Monday in a legal case involving the wrongful termination of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee…
Anyone who has ever been a Christian in a secular workplace characterized by a decidedly anti-religious environment knows all too well that this kind of “labeling” and discrimination is common place. Though JPL will advance all kinds of evidence to defend its demotion and ultimate firing of Coppedge, most unbiased Americans can read between the lines and see that what really went on here was a coordinated and widespread effort to get rid of that ignorant Christian trouble-maker. Heaven forbid somebody in NASA actually believe in God or Intelligent Design – that is pure unadulterated blasphemy to today’s breed of scientists!

Typical creationist/fundamentalist hookum. Free speech is a canard in this trial.

People are allowed to believe any tomfoolery they want, even creationism, the apex of tomfoolery, up there with with astrology, phrenology, crystal therapy and alien abductions. All of which have many, many followers. But believers can’t annoy co-workers with their beliefs and disrupt the workplace. And that’s what NASA alleges Coppedge did.
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* My favourite quotes from the Discoveroids’ website: “The Spanish Inquisition was about testing the sincerity of people’s Christianity.” “Darwinism is the tribal religion of the modern elites, presided over by The New York Times, NPR/PBS and even The Wall Street Journal.” “Ann Coulter is so funny that people fail to notice the well read public intellectual behind the laughing smile and endless blonde tresses.” (Ann Coulter is the poster girl of the uber-right wingnut caucus who personifies the term ‘shrill harridan’). Guffaws all around.
** Many scientists have challenged Darwin’s original ideas. Evolutionary theory has evolved in its own way from Darwin’s day. That’s natural (like evolution). Darwin didn’t know about genetics, DNA, viruses, radiation and other things that affect development and mutation. So of course scientists have had to refine and adapt the original theory in the light of new information. Science grows with knowledge, unlike creationism which stopped thinking about things 4,000 years ago when the Genesis mythology was first penned. Today’s evolutionary biology is far more complex and fuller than what Darwin proposed. But that doesn’t mean Darwin was wrong, any more than Newton or Galileo are wrong simply because we’ve learned new things since either.
*** Creationism is the belief that the first creation myth in the Book of Genesis is fact, not primitive mythology. Curiously, the different and contradictory second creation myth (2:4-2:25) gets ignored.

03/11/12

That’s not mass, it’s area. Poor science means bad reporting.



It will come from space, be as massive as half a football field, have the explosive power to decimate hundreds of square miles of land and will hurtle perilously close to Earth.

Just some artist's impression of a burning rockI cringed when I read this paragraph in a QMI story published in the London Free Press recently, titled “Rock of Ages: Killer Asteroid Likely to Pass in 2013.” So many mistakes in so few words. But it might be a great start for a Roger Corman B-flick script.

Of course, “it” will come from space: “it” is an asteroid. Asteroids, says Wikipedia, are, “…a class of small Solar System bodies in orbit around the Sun.” So it’s pretty obvious an asteroid can’t come from your basement, from the North Pole or from Ottawa.

“As massive as half a football field,” the writer declares. How massive is a football field? It isn’t massive at all. It has area, which is a measurement of its size in two dimensions, not mass. Mass, as Wikipedia says, has nothing to do with size: “In everyday usage, mass is often referred to as weight… In scientific use, however, the term weight refers to a different, yet related, property of matter. Weight is the gravitational force acting on a given body.”

Let’s get more technical, so we can be exact in our definition of mass: “…inertial mass, can be defined as a quantitative measure of an object’s resistance to the change of its speed.” An asteroid moving at an estimated 8.2 km/second certainly has inertial mass.

So many mistakes in so few words. But it might be a great start for a Roger Corman B-flick script.

Massive is an adjective that refers to mass, of course. So tell me, Terry Davidson, how you can measure the mass of a football field? What does a football field weigh? And is that an America, Canadian or Australian football field – because they are different sizes. The asteroid in question is estimated to be about 46m (150 feet) wide. But that doesn’t say anything about its mass which is also related to its density and speed.

Explosive power? Not really. Asteroids are not explosive, although impacts create explosions.

An explosion happens when the kinetic energy of the asteroid is converted to other forms of energy on impact. Until that moment, an asteroid does not have “explosive power,” just kinetic energy. Sometimes asteroids explode in the atmosphere as this one did over Indonesia, in 2009. But that’s a combination of rapid heat expansion, pressure and kinetic energy, not because the asteroid was “explosive.”

Decimate hundreds of square miles? Does the writer mean it will destroy every tenth square mile? The origin of decimate is Latin, and refers to a practice in the Roman Army of killing every tenth soldier as a form of punishment. Common usage means to “kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of (something),” and “drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something).” Decimate does not mean destroy everything.

It is called 2012-DA14, an asteroid that NASA scientists have been watching closely in anticipation of Feb. 15, 2013, when the mammoth piece of solid space rock will soar past the Earth a mere 24,000 kms from the planet’s surface. It will be passing even lower than the altitude at which many man-made satellites orbit.

Man-made. Bit of an anachronism, that term. I’m pretty sure there were also women working on some of those parts. I would have preferred “artificial” as a neutral adjective over the sexist “man-made.”

Mammoth? Compared to what? To a football field? It’s certainly bigger than the house Dorothy dropped on the Wicked Witch of the West, but compared to Ceres or Vesta? At 45-46m (150 feet), on the cosmic scale, it’s a pebble. It’s a fraction of the size of Asteroid 2005 YU55, which will whiz by Earth on November 8, about 319,000 kms away.

In fact 2012-DA14 is eerily similar to an asteroid that destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest in remote Siberia a little over a century ago.

In fact”? Since nothing has ever been found of the Tunguska meteorite, and certainly no sample has ever been taken of 2012-DA14, how can they be compared? Where are the “facts” about either? Many scientists believe the Tunguska event was caused by a chunk of comet, or even a micro black hole, not an asteroid. No one even knows the size of the rock that caused Tunguska, although there are educated guesses. We can only guess at any possible similarities; not state facts.

Eerily? What’s eerie about similarities between pieces of material? Eerily means, “…inspiring inexplicable fear, dread, or uneasiness; strange and frightening; suggestive of the supernatural; mysterious.” What is supernatural about a natural piece of space rock? Why would some physical similarity – size is the only property that can be estimated for both – instill dread or fear? Is it a haunted asteroid? Being “haunted” requires imaginary creatures called ghosts, not science.

The rock that exploded over Siberia, did so at an estimated 5–10 kilometres (3–6 mi) above the Earth’s surface, and likely on an impact trajectory. Asteroid 2012-DA14 will pass us by at 2,400 to 4,800 times that distance, and will not be aimed at the planet’s surface. These two are as “eerily similar” as the distance from my home to my town hall – about a mile – is similar to the distance from my home to Vancouver (about 3,500 miles).

Killer Asteroid, the headline screams! Is it time to panic? Not in 2013. Although the headline suggests it’s “likely” to pass Earth in 2013, Asteroid 2012-DA14 has zero percent chance of hitting the planet. Zero. Zilch. It’s not likely to pass us: it WILL pass us by. There’s a huge difference between likely and won’t.

You actually get some real science at the tail end of the story, where the estimated speed, size and mass of the asteroid is indicated. That’s where it says risk to hit: 0. By which I assume that means zero percent or zero chances in whatever. Not likely: none. The real data isn’t from the story writer, however, but from Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Program.

Asteroid 2012-DA14?s next closest pass, in 2040, has a 1 in 80,000 chance of striking Earth. That’s lower odds than the chance of getting rich on the Antiques Road Show (1:60,000)! Frankly, probability suggests you’re more likely to win the lottery than to be hit by any meteorite.

2040 is the year the asteroid is “likely to pass” not 2013. It’s very, very, very likely to pass in 2040, with about 12 chances in a million to hit us. Until then, I won’t worry about it. But I will continue to worry about bad science in reporting.

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Davidson’s story at least has some science buried in the hyperbole. There are many on the Internet that are a LOT worse, although few are written by reporters and are mostly the work of oddballs. “Deadly asteroid 2012 DA14 bounds towards Earth out of the blue” reads one headline, admittedly from a site that has all sorts of claptrap, from aliens to UFOs to demons and various conspiracy theories. I’m happy that the fringe lunatics have a place to play online, but the writer is incorrect in saying, “NASA confirms the 60-meter (197-feet) asteroid, spotted by Spanish stargazers in February, has a good chance of colliding with Earth in eleven months.” It has NO chance. None.